I was up to my thighs in the river, fighting the first steelhead of the day when Oona dropped her bone, stood up, looked downstream, and began to bark.
Were the sow grizzly and her cubs making their way back upstream? I looked downstream but could only see clearly to the tip of the island where the river bent north. In the meantime the steelhead on my line was pulling me strongly and steadily downstream. I dropped the tip of my rod and waded deeper to try to see farther downstream. Oona continued to bark.
What is it girl? I asked.
The fish came unstuck. Where usually I would have been slightly annoyed at losing a fish before I could get it near shore and clip its fin, I was happy to be spared the chore pending a resolution of the incipient bear problem.
Oona was barking more frantically. I saw the object of her attention – a man was walking along the railway.
It’s alright Oona, I said.
The man was packing something. At first, I thought it was a fishing rod, but as he came closer, I saw it was a rifle and that the man was Dan Daigle. I called out to him. We shouted to each other across the river for a while.
Wait, I yelled. I’ll come over.
The tail of the run was deeper than I’d judged. As I passed the stealthy stump that lurks just below the surface, and has grabbed so many of my flies in seasons past, the water lapped just below my chest. At the far side, I clambered up and over large chunks of shot rock and was thankful to have Dan’s hand available to pull me over the top of the steep, brushy, snow covered bank.
What are you hunting? I asked.
I’ve got a grizzly tag, Dan said.
Aw, don’t shoot a bear.
I’ve had some in my sights, but I passed. I’m not going to shoot one. Having the limited entry is just an excuse to go for a walk in the woods. I left my Dad back in the truck. He’s got a moose tag and it’s great that he can still get out at 80.
I told Dan about following the sow and her cubs.
Yeah, I saw them yesterday, he said. I also came across a grizzly track I could get both of my feet into.
We talked about grizzlies and fishing for a while then each of us told the other to take care whereupon we headed off in opposite directions, Dan back downstream to wake his Dad up from the latter’s nap, me upstream on the railroad to put some distance between myself, my dog, and momma grizzly.
After a few steps, I noticed a long line of bear tracks set in the snow between the rails. They extended as far as I could see into the distance and probably farther still. The tracks were large and made deep impressions, tracing the passage of a very big male bear. But the fact that they were a day or two old, and that they were headed in the opposite direction I was, gave me a little comfort.
I walked beside them to a spot a few feet past the bridge over Coldwater Creek. There they were joined by the tracks of a fisherman wearing felt soled wading boots. When I examined them closely the bear tracks obliterated some of the fisherman’s tracks. The explanation was simple. The fisherman probably walked the route in advance of the grizzly, possibly the day before.
A few hundred metres later only the fisherman’s tracks were apparent. I followed them for another hundred metres, when both tracks appeared again with the difference that the fisher’s boot tracks were now atop those of the bear in some places. As I slipped into the bush and made my way to where I hoped to cross the river, I pondered the tale told by the tracks inside the tracks. The logical hypothesis was that the big grizzly had been walking toward Coldwater Creek when he sensed the oncoming fisherman, probably catching the man’s scent. The big bruin had then slipped into the bush and sat there close to the right of way as the man passed. Then, when he deemed it appropriate, the bear had climbed back up on the railway and continued his journey. The fisherman probably had no inkling he’d passed within a few feet of the great bear.
It was Friday and I leave the weekends to those who can’t fish during the week, so it was three days before I returned to the river. Oona and I made our way down river from Herman’s Point to Hai Creek. Where the grizzly family had been fishing there were only the tracks of a large male. We walked the game trails on both sides of the river and found no sign of mother and her cubs.
Next week: Grizzly mystery